A Wisconsin TV meteorologist who photographs local communities for his newscasts was pulled over by two cop cars last week and interrogated.
Brian Gotter had just photographed a government building and a public library as a backdrop, which prompted somebody to call the cops. He was with his wife and 4-year-old son. He was there about five minutes, standing in a public parking lot and sidewalk to take his photos.
He then got back in his car and drove off with his family.
As Gotter was heading out of town, he noticed two squad cars (lights flashing) approaching him from behind at a high rate of speed. Thinking that they were on their way to an emergency, he moved into the right lane. However he quickly realized that he was being pulled over!
After being stopped, Franklin police ran his license plate and cautiously approached his vehicle. They informed him that they had received reports of an individual matching his description taking photographs of public buildings. After identifying himself and explaining what he was doing, Franklin police apologized for stopping him and allowed him to proceed.
Thankfully, there happens to be another journalist in that same town who cares enough about these issues to address it on the air and in an article.
Jeff Wagner of 620 WTMJ interviewed the local police chief on the air, who confirmed the above the event occurred and tried to justify it by saying that the act of taking pictures is enough “evidence of suspicious behavior” to warrant being pulled over.
I’m not sure any judge in the country would take the position that simply taking photographs of public buildings from public areas in the middle of the afternoon gives authorities a legal basis to detain an individual. As a matter of fact, Chief Oliva might want to take a look at a recent operational order issued by the New York City Police Department which specifically holds to the contrary. It seems to me that if officials in New York City recognize that there’s no legal basis to detain someone simply for taking photographs of public buildings, it’s hard to argue that it’s justified in Franklin, Wisconsin.
Wagner takes a reasonable but strong stance against the police actions in this incident.
First, while Brian Gotter is not going to sue the Franklin Police contending that he was illegally stopped, the next person pulled over might not be as understanding. Further, what happens if the next person is a young Arab male who happens to be an amateur photographer? Will his detention be more than momentary? If so – and if he files a lawsuit – will his damages be as mimimal?
Second, if someone is stopped illegally, any evidence found as a resuilt of the illegal stop is typically not admissible in court. Wouldn’t it be a shame to lose a prosecution simply because of some overzealous investigative techniques?
Third, this is still a free country. As several of my callers said Friday, do we want to become a complete police state is the name of national security?
While we disagree on this issue, I don’t think Chief Oliva is a bad guy. If the Franklin Police think it’s worth their time to check out someone who is taking pictures of the library, fine. They can get identifying information, run license plate numbers and commence an investigation. What I don’t think they can do is start making traffic stops without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that someone has committed a crime.